At first, it is almost a comical sight.
The stone figures, dressed up with red hats and bibs, most of them holding colourful wind toys. The strange contrast between the hard surface of the stone, and the fabric of the hats. "Only in Japan," you think, and snap a picture of the scene.
But then it hits you, the magnitude of these rows upon rows of sleeping stone dolls. You realize that they are not there for decoration. These figures have a function, and suddenly you suspect there is nothing comical about them at all.
I have seen similar - if less elaborate and fewer - statues before during my travels in Japan, and upon asking the guide I remember the vague answer "it is to help the souls of the children" or something similar. I think I took a picture of the statues then (in fact, I know, since I still have the picture), but I clearly didn't get the full explanation, or I wouldn't have forgotten.
Mizuko kuyō is a "fetus memorial service", performed monthly for (mainly) women who have had a miscarriage or abortion.
those who are willingly performing abortions to apologize to the fetus? To help the soul transition to the next level? Or all of the above?
The ritual has been increasingly popular since the 1970s, and today both women and men participate (though the women are still in majority). It takes place at designated Buddhist temples in Japan, and the ceremony varies from place to place, though in each temple it remains relatively similar each time and many of the same participants show up each time. Not all of them have themselves lost a child - some are family members and some participate for the spirituality of the ceremony.
My initial reaction to the criticism of the ritual upon reading up on this topic was that perhaps it didn't matter if scholars thought the women were being exploited if they personally felt comforted by the ceremony. While I have no personal experience in the matter, I find it interesting to read that this reaction also seems to be the case with several Western women who has experienced loss of child and feel that there is a lack of such a ritual in their own religion and culture (one particularly moving example can be found on this blog). If dressing up a stone figure and participating in a monthly meeting helps the parents deal with their grief - or other emotions - then it should be continued.
However, recent studies show that comfort isn't the primary function of the ceremonies. The participants in one study explained that they rarely talked about their own feelings with regards to the loss - or in fact about why they chose to attend at all. The mizuko, unborn child, was not a common topic for conversation at the kuyō. It is also not necessarily immediately after the mizuko experience the women chose attend the ceremonies. Many of the study in question started attending decades after they had an abortion or miscarriage. Some of the women in question were pro-choice, some were not. Some regretted their decision, some did not. Some grieved their lost child, some did not.
Some of the mizuko dolls were clearly older than others.
In the end I find it fascinating that a ritual that appears so personal, is manifested so publicly and visibly. Just another one of the many contrasts that make up modern Japan, I suppose.